Category Archives: Lookout Adventures


From December 2015 until December 2017, I had an opportunity to occasionally explore Fort Lewis for the remains of the five fire lookout towers that watched over that area, starting in the 1940s. Four are gone. Goodman Hill Lookout was still standing at that time; its current status is unknown.

The essay below describes our initial encounter with the military structure that governed our access to the base. On the day recorded below, my friends and I were able to visit the Deschutes Tower site. We later visited the Garrison Hill Lookout site and the Rainier Tower site. The sites of the Goodman Hill Lookout and the less well-known fifth fire lookout station, Nisqually, were not accessible when we were available to visit the base.  Update: April 6, 2020

We set out on a drippy Monday morning for JBLM (Joint Base Lewis McChord). I had learned there are recreational passes available that would allow us to hike on the 86,000 acres of Fort Lewis Training Areas for the next two years! Step 1 to obtaining such a permit is a one-day pass obtained at the JBLM Visitors Center, just outside the Main Gate, on the south side of Interstate 5 at Exit 120. A quick talking receptionist had said all we needed to get day passes would be drivers’ licenses for identification, plus registration and proof of vehicle insurance for the car we drove onto the base.
The Visitors Center is a very plain rectangular building sited behind a parking lot for about 60 cars. It was half full when we arrived, so we were not surprised to find a fairly full waiting room with rows of chairs and a take-a-number-for-service machine. Despite the crowd, the process went pretty quickly. Each of the four of us took our turn, produced our driver’s license and answered a few questions. I think I was the only one who could answer, “Yes, I have been on the base before.” A decade earlier, I had led a hike on the base as part of a Fort Lewis Recreational Program. My hike had gone to the one standing lookout tower on the base, at Goodman Hill. This was my first return to the military reserve.
With our temporary photo ID visitor passes, we easily entered through the carefully guarded multi-lane gate. The map I had reviewed before our trip clearly indicated that the Range Control Area Access Office was at the intersection of Stryker and Kaufman, and appeared to be straight in from the gate. I later figured out that one of the major flaws of our initial small scale map was that the gates were not clearly labeled. We had entered through a different gate.
We continued on what seemed to be the main road for about a mile. Then we came to an intersection with Stryker Avenue. We could only drive to the left, as the right side of the intersection was blocked to protect a residential area from through traffic. We knew the building number for our destination, but soon figured out that the numbers were descending, while we were looking for a larger number. Noticing one person on foot in an adjacent parking lot, we drove right up to him.
“Excuse me! Can you help us?” Once we had the attention of the competent looking man in uniform, we asked our real question: “Can you tell us where we can find the Range Area Access Control Office? It is supposed to be at building 4074 on Stryker, but we haven’t found it.”
“Sorry,” he replied. “I have only been here a couple weeks, and am still trying to find my way around.” He suggested that we continue in our current direction for half a mile, and if we did not find it, turn around. We agreed, drove past some open fields and were in sight of another gate when we decided it was high time we retraced our route.
Meanwhile, our designated navigator had gotten a Google Map working on her phone and found the street intersection we wanted. Sure enough, it was about as far beyond the main road we had driven in on as our farthest exploration. In the next few minutes we drove through blocks of drab office buildings and then a section of two story brick residences that had been housing army officers since World War II. At the intersection of Stryker and Kaufman we found a long narrow clapboard building that looked as if it belonged next to a 1940s railroad track. It was clearly marked: Range Control Area Access Office.
We climbed the short flight of stairs to the raised walkway that ran the length of the building. There was only one door near the stairs, and the information on it didn’t make any more sense to us than the name of the office, but we were confident we had come to the right place.
The door opened to a small lobby with a chest high counter on the left, staffed by three young soldiers. On the wall to the right was a large map of the Fort, with a couple dozen colored areas of various shapes and sizes, each marked with its own number.
The young soldiers asked us a few questions – what would you like to do in the training areas – their assumptions being that we most likely wanted to ride our horses or walk our dogs on the base. When we admitted we did not know exactly where we wanted to go, we were referred to the big map – probably six feet by six feet. There we discovered that we could not only figure out which Training Area each of our lookout sites was located in, but most of the locations were marked with tower icons!


Courtesy of


The desk staff waited patiently while we made our discoveries on their lovely large map and wrote down the number of each range containing a lookout site. Then one soldier explained how their system works, and how one gets to visit a particular area.

Whenever one wants to visit a Training Area, you phone the recorded message at (253) 967-6277 and learn which Training Areas are open for visiting that day and the next. When you decide to visit one of the open Training Areas, you respond to the questions at the end of the recording: • What Training Area or Areas will you visit?
• What date will you visit it or them?
• What hours do you expect to be there?
• What is your name and Access Permit Number?
• Will other Access Permit Numbers accompany you?
Okay! Now we thought we were ready to go exploring. It was only 11 a.m., so we had plenty of day left. There was a long list of Training Areas open that day (and most days, we learned). But none of them matched areas we wanted to visit.
We then learned that a few Training Areas are permanently closed. A few were closed because they are critical habitat for species that survive in only a few areas in the region. The Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly and the streaked horn lark are the creatures identified as protected here, while other rare plants and animals benefit from the reduced human traffic. Another area has been permanently closed because a helicopter spooked a horse there, the rider fell off and was injured, complained and the area was closed to recreational access.
That training area is in my home county, and the lookout site located there is one that I had visited several times a decade ago. I knew that the route to the site of the former tower there goes only a quarter mile off a county road with scattered houses on both sides. When I mentioned this to my friends, the soldier agreed that it would be easy to visit.

So we completed our Monday adventure by returning to more familiar territory. We drove south on I-5, took a connector road to Old Highway 99, turned left at the old blue roadhouse, and drove until we crossed the railroad tracks and the rail trail. We parked at a wide spot beside the trail and hiked back along the road until we came to a “Federal Property No Trespassing” sign behind a chain link fence. We followed the fence for about a hundred feet to an opening, legitimized by two tall posts and no forbidding signs. It led to a gravel road that wound to the top of the hill. The last time I had visited, cement blocks stood there that had formerly supported the legs of a 100-foot metal lookout tower. Beside the blocks had been a burnt out car body and signs of weekend keggers. Now the site was clean. All signs of the site’s history were gone. The road through the area ran in a small circle at the top of the hill, suggesting a focal point that no longer existed. There we ate our late lunch and discussed when we might use our new permits again.
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As much as I want to finish this book about Iceland’s volcanoes, I cannot let the glorious summer we are having in the Pacific Northwest go by uncelebrated!

I have just spent three days camped at Kayostla Beach on the wild Pacific coast in Olympic National Park. This beach can be reached only by hiking – long beach hikes from north or south, paddle and hike via Lake Ozette, or drive circuitous back roads from Forks and take a short hike to the beach.

When we emerged from the forest trail we were in a small campground just above a broad sandy beach with lots of beach logs washed up against the edge of the forest. Walking north on the beach a short distance we found another little campground with a broad spool table, logs and a bench arranged around a fire pit. This kitchen design decided our home for the stay! On the beach side of the camp was a tall dead tree with a three-foot-long pink buoy tied to a high branch. It marked our camp whenever we wandered the beaches while we were there.

The Pink Buoy above the Beach

Taking time for packing, driving and hiking, we arrived at our camp in mid-afternoon. The rest of the day was spent setting up tents and exploring the neighborhood – especially all the empty campsites in our stretch of the beach. In addition to great furniture for six and a pink buoy, our camp had a convenient source of fresh water in a stream flowing a hundred yards to the south.

Day Two was committed to hiking north, in hopes of finding the site of a World War II aircraft lookout cabin above the beach at Eagle Point. The “beach” between Kayostla and the Cape Alava trails to the north is considered the roughest hiking on the entire Olympic coast. I haven’t hiked it all, but this section was distinctly challenging. From sand we went to cobblestones, larger stepping stones, then boulders. The pattern seemed to repeat, with rocks coated with slippery vegetation intermixed to test our balance.

At the foot of Eagle Head we searched for a trail. Seventy years having passed since the lookout cabin was occupied in the 1940s, so we had little hope of finding one. Two of us fought our way to the top of the 200 foot bluff – sometimes pulling up on green belay and sometimes crawling on steep rabbit trails. Most of the growth on our route seemed to be salal, although I remember trusting my weight to sturdy sword ferns as well. We appreciated finding few prickly blackberries or roses on our ascent.

On top we found only one clearing – a rare area where no bushes grew, just grasses and tender plants. We found no cabin, but without maintenance, none was expected after so many decades of the harsh Olympic weather. After catching our breath, we took a few photos to record our visit to the site.

We descended the bluff quickly, once we found the trail that had closed behind us. Our companions on the beach started calling when they spotted our motion in the shrubbery. When they were assured that we were headed down, most started hiking south. The tide was rising and we all needed to get around the next point to Kayostla Beach before the water came crashing on those slippery rocks. My friends and I passed the critical headland with minutes to spare and wandered the beach toward camp with an eye out for beach treasures as we ambled along.

The next day we headed south – thinking we were leaving rock hopping and boulder clambering behind. This was our sunshine day, designed for strolling sandy beaches, contemplating the offshore seastacks and the headlands to climb over. Just north of Starbuck Creek is a headland which once supported another lookout cabin built for the aircraft watchers of the early 1940s. But the building disappeared when the section of the cliff where it stood collapsed sometime during the intervening years.The ladder to Starbuck

Headlands throughout this area rise steeply to 200 feet above the beach. The trails are often foot holes in the bank with a sturdy but loose-hanging rope fastened somewhere above, to hold onto while ascending. This trail had a wooden ladder held together with ½” steel cable – and a rope for added security.

Four of us ascended the Starbuck headland and then found a traversing trail going out to the point of the ridge. High above the beach – and clinging to a sturdy tree on the narrow summit – we peered out as the aircraft lookout must have done so long ago. Now we saw sturdy backpackers and even families hiking on the beach. Then the two men and a dog assigned to each station had lonely duty and only radio contact with a dispatcher back at Lake Ozette.

At the headland above Cedar Creek we again found round markers high on the bank, telling with their yellow and black quartering that the point held danger at high tide and a route over the headland was available. These steep trails were carved out long ago and do not get much maintenance. One we saw seemed to be a steep clay bank with only a rope – no footholds. Most of us appreciated the low tide when we approached that point, and worked our way around on the rocks at the foot of the bluff to avoid the cliff climb. The approach from the other side was a pleasant gradual ascent on a woodsy trail – after the first ten feet above the beach had been maneuvered. It is hard to remember on a warm sunny day that winter storms thrash the feet of these bluffs. Logs beat against the bank and reshape anything we might like to think of as a trailhead.

The reward at the top of this headland was the remains of a cabin which stood against the weather until 2007. Its relatively easy access had made it a favorite for beach hikers and it had gotten periodic repairs that held it together until fairly recently. According to Olympic National Park information on the internet, this cabin was known as “Coastie,” suggesting that it was part of the Coast Guard’s aircraft watch program in 1941 and ‘42.

After a day of climbing two headlands and walking the beach admiring plants, rocks, shells and glass beach gems, we returned to our camp under the big pink buoy. Our explorations were complete for this visit and the fog bank was returning. Summer was not yet over, but it would probably be the last time this year that most of us would visit this well favored location.